Jazz writers tend to overuse the term “legendary.” “Is everybody who’s ever owned a saxophone ‘legendary’?” asks a classical music critic friend of mine. He always pantomimes air quotes when uttering the L word.
Well, no, not every jazz saxophonist deserves the L word, but among jazz aficionados, there’s little dispute that Charlie Parker is truly legendary — ditto for John Coltrane and a few others. Among those other saxophonists who operate in the rarified atmosphere of the legendary is Charles Lloyd — air quotes unnecessary.
Now 79, the 2015 NEA Jazz Master returns with his band the Marvels for an SCP Jazz Series concert April 21. Along with Lloyd (saxophone and flute), the band consists of guitarist Bill Frisell, pedal-steel guitarist Greg Leisz, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland.
“Mr. Lloyd has come up with a strange and beautiful distillation of the American experience, part abandoned and wild, part immensely controlled and sophisticated,” wrote the New York Times in a review.
The Santa Barbara Independent was even more effusive: “With his new group, the Marvels, Charles Lloyd has got both the name and the time right. The name fits because this collection of musicians — guitarists Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland — really is marvelous and beyond compare in its hybrid idiom of free jazz, rock and Americana.”
Lloyd’s musical journey into the worlds of free jazz, rock and Americana began when he was a mere boy. Born in Memphis in 1938, he was immediately plunged into a difficult childhood. His mother was not prepared to have or raise him. In Lloyd’s own words, “She was always leaving me on other people’s doorsteps. I never felt welcome and I always was a loner. I made a connection with the Creator when I was very young.”
But Memphis offered the young Lloyd a place to grow. The sounds of blues, gospel and jazz were never far off. At the age of 9, he got his first saxophone and not many years later was playing in a band with pianist Phineas Newborn. His closest childhood friend was trumpeter Booker Little. In his teen years, he worked as a sideman for such noted blues artists as Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King.
In the mid-1950s, Lloyd left Memphis and headed to Los Angeles to study music at the University of Southern California. Among his teachers was composer and Bartók scholar Halsey Stevens.
While he spent his days at the university, he spent his nights in West Coast jazz clubs, bumping up against such avant-garde luminaries as Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Charlie Haden and a host of others. In those years, Lloyd was also a member of Gerald Wilson’s renowned big band.
In 1960, Lloyd became the music director of Chico Hamilton’s group, arranging and writing music for two Hamilton albums on the Impulse! label, “Passin’ Thru” (1963) and “Man From Two Worlds” (1963). A few years later, Lloyd joined the Cannonball Adderley Sextet.
In 1964, Lloyd began recording as a leader. His Columbia albums “Discovery!” (1965) and “Of Course, Of Course” (1965) with Roy Haynes and Tony Williams on drums, Richard Davis and Ron Carter on bass, Gábor Szabó on guitar and Don Friedman on piano, garnered him DownBeat magazine’s New Star Award. He was 27 at the time.
He soon formed his own quartet with pianist Keith Jarrett, drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Cecil McBee. Their album “Forest Flower: Live at Monterey” (1968) became a crossover hit and sold a million copies. This same quartet was the first jazz group to appear at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium.
The group not only explored avant-garde and free jazz but ventured into psychedelic rock. Lloyd often appeared with rock groups such as the Doors and the Beach Boys, and with his quartet he shared billing with Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. In 1967, DownBeat magazine named Lloyd as its Jazz Artist of the Year. He was not yet 30.
Lloyd seemed to move from one musical triumph to another, but within him resides a deep spirituality, which by 1969 needed attention. “In ’69, I got off the bus and came back to California,” Lloyd told Jazz Weekly’s Fred Jung. Starting out in Malibu, Lloyd moved to Big Sur. “I lived on this cliff in this incredible glass and cement structure that some crazy architect had built on a piece of rock. I lived there and worked and worked on my tone, worked on my character and meditated a lot. I didn’t get in cars often, and I became a vegetarian. I was blessed to get off the bus because I had to go into the woods.”
In the 1970s, Lloyd mostly played with the Beach Boys, and re-entered the jazz world in 1981, touring and recording with renowned French jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani. In 1982, he returned to Big Sur.
Of course, he came back to performing, recording, pushing the envelope and crossing musical boundaries. He’s made a host of albums over the past three decades. His current group, the Marvels, records on Blue Note, and their 2016 album “I Long to See You” boasts guest appearances on two tracks by Willie Nelson and Norah Jones.
In the words of the master, “All I can tell you is that something is going on now that I didn’t have as a young man. It flows. It always flows.”
Indeed it does.